By David D. Kirkpatrick and Liam Stack
The New York TimesNovember 19, 2011
CAIRO — A police action to roust a few hundred protesters out of Tahrir Square on Saturday instead drew thousands of people from across Egyptian society into the streets, where they battled riot police officers for hours in the most violent manifestation yet of growing anger at the military-led interim government.
Black smoke from a burning police truck mixed with tear gas in Cairo's Tahrir Square as thousands of demonstrators rallied Saturday against Egypt's military-led interim government. More Photos »
In a battle reminiscent of the clashes that led to the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak nine months ago, a mass of protesters converged on Tahrir Square, fled before an onslaught of riot police officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets, and then surged back to retake and hold the square through the early hours of Sunday.
State media reported that more than 650 people had been injured, including 40 riot police officers, and at least one civilian was killed.
Coming a day after a huge Islamist demonstration and just more than a week before the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, the outpouring of anger was the strongest rebuke yet with the military’s attempts to grant itself permanent governmental powers. And it was a reuniting of Islamist and liberal protest movements that had drifted apart since the early days of the uprising.
This time, instead of chanting for the fall of Mr. Mubarak, the demonstrators were chanting for the fall of the ruling military council that initially presented itself as the revolution’s savior.
“The generals said to us, ‘We are your partners,’ and we believed them,” said Tarek Saaed, 55, a construction safety supervisor who used a cane to walk among the boisterous crowds in the square. “Then the next day we find out they are partners with Mubarak,” he added, calling the day a turning point for Egypt.
The crowd only grew as state news media reported that the military said it would step back from a blueprint it had laid out this month for a lasting political role under the new constitution. Many of the protesters, and some outside observers, argued that the confrontation marked a significant setback to the military.
“The military council now feels that the political street will not accept that the military is going to hold the power for a long time,” argued Mahmoud Shokry, a former Egyptian ambassador and veteran political insider. “I think the military is going to reconsider the situation once more.”
After pledging to turn over power to civilians by September, the military has postponed the handover until after the ratification of a constitution and election of a president, sometime in 2013 or later. Then this month the military-led government put in writing a set of ground rules for a next constitution that would have given the military authority to intervene in civilian politics while protecting it from civilian oversight — setting off a firestorm.
“An extremely big mistake,” Mr. Shokry said.
Opposition to those guidelines brought the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group, back to the streets in force Friday as part of a rally tens of thousands of Islamists and a smaller contingent of liberals calling for an end to military rule.
In response, the military-led interim government announced Saturday morning that its constitutional guidelines would no longer be binding, only advisory. The government also revised the rules to say that the only role of the armed forces was protecting the country and “preserving its unity,” rather than the broader writ to guard Egypt’s “constitutional legitimacy.” Many, especially Islamists, believed the phrase had granted the authority to intervene at will in the civilian government.
In another bid to placate the protesters, the revisions also explicitly place the military under civilian government. “Like other state institutions,” the new text declares, the military should “abide by the constitutional and legislative regulations.”
“The president of the republic is the supreme commander of the armed forces and the minister of defense is the general commander of the armed forces,” the revised declaration said.
Still though, the military has not agreed to cede power once a Parliament is elected, or while the constitution is being drafted. Nor has it backed away from its right to set other nominating procedures for the constitutional drafting committee or to impose other rules on the final text.
Later Saturday morning, riot police officers moved into the square to eject a relative handful of protesters who had camped there overnight, including some relatives of those injured in the uprising against Mr. Mubarak and demanding compensation.
News reports of brutality by the riot police, however, brought out hundreds and then thousands of others vowing to defend Tahrir Square, the iconic center of Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring. “The people want to bring down the field marshal,” they chanted. “Down with military rule!”
Unlike at many of the street protests here, young women in Western as well as Islamic dress and older people joined the throngs of young men, just as they did during the uprising. “We saw that people were being attacked and we came down to help,” said Huda Ouda, a 30-year-old secretary, pulling her red veil across her face as mask against tear gas. “We are completely against the military ruling this country,” she added, accusing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of “playing a dirty game” by promoting chaos to create a pretext for holding power.
Ahmed Tamer, 37, from the neighborhood of Shubra, said: “The army still has us by the neck and they don’t want to let go.”
Protesters invading the square threw rocks at police vehicles, and by midday had captured a police truck. Rioters danced on the roof and passed out handcuffs, shields and other gear.
Others smashed the sidewalk into rocks to hurl at the police, or threw Molotov cocktails. Vehicles were set ablaze, fires were lit on the sidewalks, and late at night a bank caught fire. Plumes of black smoke from a burning police truck wafted through the white clouds of tear gas that floated along the Nile.
Retreating riot police officers fired nonlethal weapons from their trucks to try to push back the crowd. Clashes broke out throughout downtown Cairo and lasted for hours. An especially pitched battle lasted until well after midnight on the street leading from Tahrir Square to the Interior Ministry, and it was there that a police vehicle charged through the tear gas into a crowd of protesters.
Around 6 p.m., the police appeared to have retaken the square. But as the battle continued, the Muslim Brotherhood called on its members to return to the square, as did the liberal April 6 Movement. An organized group of hard-core soccer fans — experienced veterans of clashes with police, and since the revolution a regular element of street protests here — joined as well, and by about 7 p.m. the police had retreated again from the square as battles continued for several hours on the side streets.
Many worried that the strife was a ploy to disrupt the elections, now scheduled to begin Nov. 28. “This is exactly what the army wants,” said Mohamed Suleiman, 22, emerging from a government building to find chaos. “It is all a plan. I am afraid they will see this now and say the elections are impossible.”
The military’s plans for the constitution have been a major subject of debate on television talk shows here since the guidelines first emerged. Many protesters appeared well versed in the principles at stake. And their anger was undiminished by signs Saturday morning that the military-led government was beginning to offer concessions.
“It was our mistake to leave the square and allow the military to take over in the first place,” said Moktar Hussein, a 57-year-old radiologist and supporter of the new Social Democratic Party who was mingling in the liberated square after dark.
Naglia Nassar, a lawyer standing nearby, said she had been reluctantly willing to tolerate the military’s constitutional guidelines before she saw the rough treatment of the protesters and decided to come to the square. “If that is the way they are going to run us,” she said, “they have to be held accountable.”
Mayy el Sheikh, Dina Amer and Amina Ismail contributed reporting.